Words by Ili Hyseni
Group D was harsh on Tunisia. In the end, the team will feel like they should have qualified for the R16 and could have arguably beaten Denmark in the first game and definitely should have beaten Australia in the second. In their final game against France, despite being knocked out due to things out of their control, Tunisia added themselves to the list of sides that have claimed historic victories at this year’s finals.
The 1-0 win against France was representative of a wider cultural shift happening in football. The group stages have shown us that the balance of power is no longer solely in the hands of European football with sides from Africa and Asia now threatening to disrupt the status quo- and rightfully so.
Tunisia as a footballing nation are used to punching above their weight, despite being surrounded by rivals with much bigger populations and storied football heritage. And despite the lack of sporting infrastructure, the North African country continues to produce talent at a rate that allows the national team to stay competitive when the demographic and economic odds are stacked against them.
The reasons for this? Cultural attitudes to sport.
Tunisia is completely obsessed with football. Where the country lacks in national infrastructure it makes up for it with sheer will to compete at the highest level. Most people play the sport and it’s a running joke in the country that everybody knows someone who’s friends with a professional footballer.
It is this same national love affair with the beautiful game that helped the team become African National Team of the Year five times between 1995-2005, as well contributing to their first AFCON title in 2004.
At a times when the Tunisian people have endured government oppression, sport and in particular football has provided people with a form of escape. Between 1987 and 2011 the country was ruled under the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, with the football pitch one of the few places in Tunisian society where people could express themselves freely.
Like many of its neighbours, Tunisia has a large diaspora that allows the country to spread roots far beyond its borders. Like Algeria and Morocco, the national team has benefitted from players born and raised in France, with the likes of Khazri, Sliti and Shkiri receiving their football education in the country. But, Tunisia is not solely reliant on European footballers for its success. A number of the squad that featured in Qatar play for either Espérance de Tunis, one of the giants of African club football or a number of other North African and Arab clubs.
With all these factors combined, the Eagles of Carthage have been able to go toe to toe with their competitors in Africa but also contribute to the game on the world’s biggest stage. Tunisia may have been knocked out of the tournament following a bittersweet win against France but their spirit will live on in Qatar long after the final two teams pack their bags.